NPFMC Requests Expanded Discussion Paper on Bristol Bay Red King Crab Issues

Red king crab
Red king crab. Image: NOAA

At their April meeting, federal fisheries managers voted for the production of an extended discussion paper with an analysis of impacts of annual or seasonal closures to pelagic trawl, groundfish pot and longline gear in the Red King Crab Savings Area.

They also called for tables to track all sources of red king crab mortality across federal waters.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council also requested that the paper go to its scientific and statistical committee for review and comment before it is presented at the October council session.

The unanimous vote came after extensive testimony and discussion at the Anchorage meeting, a move that Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Executive Director Jamie Goen called a step in the right direction. But it left out some important protections for crab and there were concerns that the action would not be fast enough to help rebuild this iconic and highly valued fishery.

Crab stocks have been on a downward trend for over a decade, and the Bristol Bay red king crab directed fishery was recently closed.  In response to the council’s decision, Goen noted that in 2012 when the trend first started, the council’s own scientists and managers provided detailed recommendations for actions to help the crab, including additional protections for females, spawning grounds and molting.

In the decade since, the council has not acted on these recommendations, Goen said.

“It is simply unacceptable for the council and state, with a management responsibility to keep this stock sustainable, to allow this to happen at the cost of now closing down the directed crab fishery, and harming Alaska’s coastal communities and fishing families that rely on hundreds of millions of dollars from the crab fishery for income and tax revenues,” she said.  “It has ripple effects to the municipalities, local schools and support businesses from this closure.”

Goen also said the expanded discussion paper did call for exploration of some key elements, like closing all gears from the Red King Crab Savings Area. But the paper does not appear to address other important factors, she said, like protections to help optimize recruitment events, a crucial piece of helping this stock recover.

“Nor does the expanded discussion paper due in October appear to address areas that could be having big impacts on crab, unobserved fishing mortality, in a timely fashion,” Goen said. “Unobserved fishing mortality in this case is crab that are killed after coming in contact with fishing gear, like footrope or chains on midwater trawl gear as it is dragging the bottom.”

“These are the crabs killed and left on the ocean floor that never make it into the codend to come up on deck and have an opportunity to be observed and counted,” she said.

The council motion noted that the extended discussion paper requested for its October meeting should include the scientific information needed to create dynamic closed areas, such as seasonal or annual shifting closed areas, to protect female Bristol Bay red king crab. Members also sought information on allowing the Amendment 80 sector to create rolling hotspot closure systems to avoid and reduce prohibited species catch, as well as the potential tradeoffs of doing so on encounter rates of halibut.

“The expanded discussion paper also does not appear to pick up habitat protections for the various life stages of crab nor localized heavy fishing impacts in Bristol Bay which have also been overlooked in the council’s essential fish habitat work,” Goen explained.

“The council would do better to take a more comprehensive, ecosystem approach to crab, which are themselves part of the seafloor habitat, by looking at the full picture of what could help both crab and crab habitat at a time when this stock is at such a critical low level of abundance,” she commented.